Cotabato tells its own stories
KIDAPAWAN CITY — Once, there were two brothers, Mamalu and Tabunaway, who lived peacefully in Mindanao. When Sharif Kabungsuwan, the Arab-Malay warrior-missionary, came to preach Islam, Tabunaway converted, but Mamalu decided to hold fast to the beliefs of their elders. The brothers parted ways: Tabunaway to the lowlands and Mamalu to the mountains, but they vowed to honor their kinship, and thus they lived in harmony.
Such is the narrative, animated into a cartoon, which greets the visitors of Museyo Kutawato, Cotabato’s newly opened provincial museum which I had the opportunity to visit recently. As an introduction, it makes very clear that this is a museum of and about Cotabato. The history begins not with Magellan, but with the two communities that predate Christianity: the indigenous peoples and the Moros.
The visitor is then led to main exhibit halls which speak of the rich heritage of a once-larger province whose name literally means “stone fort”: brass utensils, handwoven textiles, musical instruments, elaborately designed swords. “Maguindanao was an independent harbour principality,” one of the sign reads, anticipating that many visitors are unaware of the old glory of a region that was once part of the Maguindanao sultanate.
“The perception is that the Moros are primitive,” Antonio Montalvan II, an Inquirer columnist and the museum’s curatorial director, tells me. “But the historical record shows otherwise. They were trading with Malacca, India and China. They were even writing letters to European monarchs. Clearly, they had their own sophisticated culture.”
The next part of the exhibit moves to the more recent — and perhaps thornier — past: firearms of the “priest killer” Norberto Manero, news clippings about deadly tribal wars, and laws that dispossessed the Moros of their land and civil rights. A ballot box is on display, reminding visitors that Moros only gained the right to vote in 1950, well after the rest of the country. All of these painful memories are referred to by a term that carries so much meaning in the region: “historical injustice.”
After going through a tour of the museum, I joined sociologist Nicole Curato in a discussion with Moro and IP leaders (the IPs in Cotabato prefer the term over “lumad,” which is Cebuano for “native”). The Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) looms large in their thoughts, with the Moros hopeful of its urgent passage.
The IPs are quick to voice support for the BBL — but are worried about its implications for their ancestral domains, which are, even now, subject to land-grabbing and logging. “If the Moros are oppressed, we are even more so, because we were the original residents of the land,” a Menuvu chieftain told me. “And unlike them, we are not organized, we are unarmed, we are powerless.”
Still, there is some optimism, at least within Cotabato, where Gov. Emmylou Taliño-Mendoza is seen as a sympathetic leader. “We’re not just seen as a flower vase, but listened to as a partner. That is important to us,” one of our interlocutors said.
Regarding the museum itself, they, too, are happy—and many residents are pledging to donate their own heirlooms. “This museum is important,” an Iranun sultan averred, “because it gives us halaga (importance). And that means a lot to us.” His words are a reminder that it is not just land or resources that they are fighting for—and that there can be no peace without a restoration of dignity for all the peoples in Mindanao.
As an anthropologist I am always cautious with attempts to (re)imagine the past; much as I want to think of precolonial Philippines as a utopia, I am mindful that neither Christianity nor Western colonialism has a monopoly of oppression. Even so, moving forward, can we not achieve harmony amidst differences; unity amidst diversity; justice alongside forgiveness? The inclusive message of the museum, just like the optimism of the people we met, gives me reason to hope that someday Christians may be seen not as colonizers — but as Mamalu and Tabunaway’s lost brothers and sisters.
And that someday we will all be united by a kinship of solidarity, and—Inshallah—a future of peace.
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